No. 3: Wisconsin residents experienced what it’s like to have their governor perform on the national stage when Scott Walker ran his brief campaign for U.S. president in 2015. While Walker courted voters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, many people in the Badger State wondered how he could govern and run a presidential race at the same time. Sitting governors—no matter how connected they remain in their state’s day-to-day operations while on the presidential campaign trail—are perceived as absentee governors. But before Walker’s absence became a major issue, his sudden departure from the race in September immediately silenced that criticism.
Walker’s seventy-one-day campaign launched officially in July, but earlier in the year his testing of the political waters signaled that his priorities might soon be shifting. He quickly emerged as a Republican favorite in January when he gave a rousing speech at an event in Iowa. By early spring, he was getting noticed by conservatives nationally with his tough stance on public employee unions and was considered the GOP frontrunner in Iowa. His national profile got a boost when billionaire David Koch, during an April fundraising event in New York, indicated that Walker might be his preferred candidate. Walker said he would not make a decision on entering the race for the White House until the state budget passed, yet his frequent travel out of state suggested otherwise. He was criticized for appearing at functions in key states that hold early primaries instead of traveling around Wisconsin to make his case for his budget proposal. Democrats in the state Legislature had been grumbling that Walker was an absentee governor, despite claims from GOP lawmakers that Walker was always accessible while he was on the road. By late spring, opinion polls showed Walker ahead in Iowa and near the front of the pack in national polls in an increasingly crowded field of GOP candidates. By the time Walker declared his candidacy on July 13, some felt he had long ago checked out of the governorship.
What a presidential candidate says on the road must square with voters back home, but some saw inconsistencies in Walker’s narrative and his political persona. While the news media in Wisconsin covered budget reductions stemming from the new state budget— including $250 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System—network and cable television showed Walker telling people in other states what he would do for them if he were elected president. His stump speeches on how his policies have made life better for residents in his home state seemed unfamiliar to those having to deal with diminished state funding under Walker’s leadership. Still, many Wisconsin residents cheered on Walker and watched with pride to see their top elected official listed among the upper tier of presidential hopefuls. His candidacy put Wisconsin in the national spotlight. But the self-assured, laser-focused politician that Wisconsinites had come to expect wasn’t the same person they saw making political gaffes in interviews and giving staid performances in the Republican presidential debates.
There has been much speculation about Walker’s political future, but it’s too soon to count him out on another bid for either governor or the presidency. In March 2006, Walker, then Milwaukee county executive, ended his first run for Wisconsin governor and endorsed fellow Republican Mark Green, who eventually lost to Democratic incumbent Jim Doyle. But Walker came back strong in 2010 to win the seat, survived a recall election and was elected to a second term. He has proven to be a driven individual who learns from his experiences.
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